A young Azerbaijani opposition activist spent the weekend in incommunicado detention after a group of men in plainclothes seized him in the capital Baku on Saturday, the latest in a string of activist detentions documented by Amnesty International since the city hosted the Eurovision Song Contest earlier this year.
Zaur Gurbanli, 25, was finally allowed to see his lawyer on Monday after being handed 15 days in prison for “resisting arrest”. The Anti-Organized Crimes Unit – which was allegedly responsible for his detention – has said they are now investigating his possession of a number of “illegal materials”.
“Azerbaijani opposition activists are routinely detained on the pretext of resisting police, giving the authorities 15 days to try to build a case against them,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International.
Gurbanli is the chair of Nida, an opposition youth movement that also campaigns for democracy and human rights. He was involved in the “Sing for Democracy” campaign that persuaded this year’s Eurovision winner Loreen to condemn rights abuses in Azerbaijan.
In a hasty telephone call to a friend on Saturday he said that a group of men in plainclothes had stopped him outside his apartment in Baku and presented themselves as officers of the Azerbaijan’s Organized Crimes Unit.
The men seized Gurbanli apparently without explanation, saying they were taking him to the Yasamal District police station. When his lawyer contacted the police station, officers said that he was not there.
During the arrest, Gurbanli’s laptop and Nida materials were taken from his apartment, as well as a number of documents and articles from the office of another NGO he is involved in, Positive Change – suggesting that he has been targeted for his political activity.
The other staff at Positive Change were forced to give their names, have their photographs taken, and to hand over their membership lists. Officers of the Anti-Organized Crimes Unit brought Zaur Gurbanli to the search without handcuffs or restraints, making their claim that he resisted arrest highly dubious.
A regular blogger, he recently posted an article criticizing government corruption and nepotism. The piece ridiculed the inclusion of a poem by President Ilham Aliyev’s daughter as mandatory reading in the country’s school curriculum.
“It looks very much like the Azerbaijani authorities decided Zaur Gurbanli crossed the line when he poked fun at the President’s family,” said Dalhuisen.
“If he is being targeted because of his legitimate political or online activity, he must be released immediately.”
Criticism of the President’s family frequently provokes a swift and harsh response from the Azerbaijani authorities. In March this year two musicians were arrested and tortured after they insulted the President’s late mother during a performance.
Zaur Gurbanli is the latest in a series of young activists and human rights defenders to be targeted for their role in Sing for Democracy. Mehman Huseynov, 23, is currently being tried on bogus hooliganism charges brought in retaliation for his work as the campaign’s Media Coordinator.